The Rain Before It Falls (2007) is the first Jonathan Coe novel I have read and, surveying the press coverage in retrospect, I think I may have chosen a poor introduction to his ouevre. Everywhere I go I see him described as hilarious and political, witty and satirical - a sort of comic Martin Amis, sans the misogyny. My experience couldn't have been more different. I picked it up after reading about Coe's 'literary love affair' with Virago Classics in the Guardian Review - the story of how, in his youth, he fell in love with writers like Rosamund Lehmann, Dorothy Richardson and Barbara Pym under the aegis of their gentile green covers. In the same article - a classic example of the advert-essay - he suggested that The Rain Before it Falls represents a homage to this kind of fiction by women. Unfortunately, I don't think it a particularly good one. It turns out to be a muted affair: sparse, sentimental, sadly short on humour and lacking an essential sharpness. Barely as long as McEwan's On Chesil Beach, Penguin have stretched it out to 278 pages (and into the £17.99 bracket) by enlarging the font to ridiculous proportions which, in turn, makes the book's short chapters seem loose and baggy rather than elegantly cropped.
Rosamund, Coe's first person narrator, is dying alone in her cottage in Shropshire, predeceased by her life partner, Ruth, and haunted by her family history. Her final thoughts have turned to her cousin's blind granddaughter, Imogen, a girl she hasn't seen in 23 years but with whom she continues to feel an extroadinary bond. In order to explain to Imogen how she came to be adopted and estranged from her mother and the rest of her family (and, eventually, after much prevarication, how she came to be blind), Rosamund sits down to record her life story on to a series of four C-90 audio tapes. The irony of the realisation that you're reading an audio-book is, sadly, the best the novel has to offer.
In order that her memory might be sparked, Rosamund chooses twenty photographs from her past - of the actors and scenes from her story - and sets about describing them, somewhat doggedly, turning the static images into spoken memories. Of course the reader, like Imogen, is blind to these pictures - we can never see them, only hear them. I suppose they act as a kind of commentary on the sensory powers of fiction, and the episodic nature of memory, but ultimately Coe uses them only to provide points of structure and interest in Rosamund's subsequent ramble. In my opinion it doesn't work - it looks too much like what it is, a device, and not enough like the strategy of a living, breathing character. It would have been infinitely better used if the pictures had been slaves to story, rather than vice-a-versa. As it is the tyrany of the structure forces the narrative to stop-start-stop-start with each new image and it is often curtailed abruptly just when the story is beginning to flow naturally:
'I can see that this photograph has done its work and further memories, more general memories of those few months, are starting to come back to me. Time to move on.'
Memories of this 'more general' kind - ones which are not so important to the relentless agenda of the story - are just the kind needed to enrich the novel. Each break from them jolted me and reminded me that a) there was no Rosamund, that b) there were no photographs, and that c) there was only the all-powerful and arbitrary novelist, cutting and pasting on his computer, with a purpose and an ending in sight. I felt increasingly and frustratingly outside of the experience of novel, like I was simply turning pages to get the next photograph - only ten to go; now only five; now only one - which is probably the saddest reaction it could have engendered.
To this Coe adds a second layer of distance, a framing narrative in which Rosamund's tapes are found by her niece and executor, Gill, following her death. It is Gill and not Imogen who listens to the tapes (along with her two daughters), allowing the reader to 'hear' them vicariously. She has little to offer to the novel on her own behalf - she is a conduit, no more - and what she learns from the tapes is almost entirely removed from her own emotional interests. She vaguely remembers meeting Imogen once, at a family party, but nothing more. The writing in these sections also leaves a lot to be desire. Following on from the dullest opening sentence in the recent history of fiction - 'When the telephone rang Gill was outside, raking leaves into coppery piles, while her husband shovelled them on to a bonfire.' - is a slow burn of workmanlike constructions, interspersed with thoroughly ordinary pieces of dialogue. If The Rain Before it Falls was food it would be a plain ham sandwich, white bread, cut in half, served on a white plate; no pickle, no cheese, no salad, definitely no garnish. There is none of the lightness, sureness or variety that would invite a positive comparison with a well-lovedVirago.
It is true that Coe has more dexterity in Rosamund's sections, but these are still somewhat bland, with set phrases returning again and again. Which is a shame, because the story at the heart of novel has the potential to move. Rosamund's cousin, Beatrix, was never properly loved by her mother and, in turn, finds it difficult to love her own daughter, Thea. Blamed, threatened and, at one point, abandoned entirely for years, Thea gets pregnant very young and has another daughter, the central and elusive Imogen. It is inevitable that she should, in due course, fall ultimate victim of this resentful, hurtful heritage. It could have been written up into a resonant story of mother-daughter conflict, with hints at the extroadinary emotional violence that can marr familial relationships; it could have proved very sad. But the structure and the writing make it seem merely routine. Indeed, routine is a good word to describe the novel in its entirety.
I was even uninspired by Rosamund's sexuality, which should have made her the novel's most divisive character. Instead, her lesbianism only serves to make her a spectator to the reproductive antics of Beatrix and Thea, and has the effect of making her inert, ever available to act as an emotional prop and a mother substitute. It means nothing in and of itself; it is a matter of resignation and apathy. The ending, when it finally comes, is tissue-paper thin too, gesturing at some extroadinary meaningfulness but only managing a cliche about how 'everything is connected'. Give me a old Virago paperback any day.